Just a few hours after the Tamil Nadu government announced that section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) would come into effect on Tuesday evening, several thousand from Chennai thronged the main bus terminus, the Central Moffusil Bus Terminus (CMBT), on Monday evening to somehow travel back home.
The order resulted in a melee at the bus terminus with people hanging down from widows, scrambling their way up to the seats, chasing down buses and squeezing themselves onto the narrow walkway inside the bus in a desperate bid to reach home, all of them consumed with a singular thought â€” to reach home and be with family in this time of crisis. These set of people hailing from outside Chennai had taken their chances by initially staying in the city amid the growing spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic. But the announcement of section 144 induced panic.
Koushika Krishnakumar, a 24-year-old IT professional who hails from Coimbatore, has been working in Chennai. When she heard about section 144, she immediately rushed to CMBT on Monday afternoon with three other friends also from Coimbatore. â€śFor about 2 hours, from 4 pm to 6 pm I tried everything to find a seat in a bus travelling to Coimbatore. I could not find any Coimbatore bus at the terminus. A couple of Salem buses were available but they were completely occupied,â€ť she says, recalling details from that evening. Kaushika explains that she was unable to book tickets online.
â€śBooking for private buses, the page would simply not proceed any further and when you called the bus service, there would be no response. Only those who went in person to the booking office were able to get their tickets. The rates too were at least Rs 500 more than what theyâ€™d usually charge,â€ť she adds.
Koushika also says that while buses to Vellore and Dharmapuri were relatively free, it was the buses to Thanjavur, Kumbakonam and other south Tamil Nadu districts that were unbelievably crowded. Many pointed out the futility of the exercise by this overcrowding. While section 144 has been imposed to bring about stricter enforcement of self-isolation, the very fact that thousands gathered in one place, and are now scattering to the rest of the state was a worrying sight.
When asked if she found more buses running to one district, as assured by the government, she notes, â€śNo, in place of four private buses, only two were allowed by the government. So if one bus operator had four buses running to Coimbatore daily, he was able to operate only two. As for government-run buses, it was just one.â€ť
Left with no other choice, Koushika finally reached out to a friendâ€™s fatherâ€™s friend who was driving to Coimbatore. â€śAbout five of us travelled in the car to Salem and we started around 11 pm. There was a lot of traffic on the highway and it took till 7.15 am to reach Salem. I then took a bus that was relatively freer to reach Coimbatore. Since we were not allowed to drive through Erode, we took a different route and reached Coimbatore in 4 hours,â€ť she says.
As for Vishwanathan Govindarajan, the journey back home to Madurai from Chennai would be his most memorable, he says, having made the best out of a grave situation. The 24-year-old IT professional who was residing in Thiruvanmiyur in Chennai while working for a Noida-based firm took a moment to assess the situation before deciding to go back home. â€śA lot of them had already left to their respective hometowns and a very few of us were here in Chennai. When I saw those pictures being shared from Koyambedu, I decided to reach Tambaram instead and find a bus that was going to Madurai,â€ť he shares.
Vishwanathan with Karthik and Karuppiah
Vishwanathan continues, â€śI chose not to go to Koyambedu because it is a risk. We don't know what might happen after the 31st and I was left with no option but to go back home. But staying safe is most important. I did not want to become a carrier of the virus while going back home.â€ť He also notes that for those staying away from homes in Chennai, availability to food was their biggest concern. â€śWe can't expect most hotels to stay open even if they are allowed to deliver their food. And most of us depend on food from hotels,â€ť he explains.
However, Tambaram and Perungalathur were not any better so Vishwanathan was left in a pickle. He reached out to his friend Karthik whose father Karuppiah is an auto-rickshaw driver in the city. â€śI went to their house in Maduravoyal and stayed for the night. We began at 4 am the next day in his auto and reached Melur in Madurai by 2 pm. Uncle was kind enough to take me to Madurai,â€ť shares the 24-year-old IT professional.
Vishwanathan, who admits that they had a good time driving to Madurai in an auto, makes a few important notes on the journey itself. â€śIt is usual to see buses plying on highways but this time we saw many of them riding doubles and triples on bikes. People loaded themselves onto mini trucks, children holding on to their parentsâ€¦ We also saw a few accidents en route. Availability of petrol was a problem. Many bunks on the highway did not have. At some point, we had to walk for about half-hour to buy petrol in a can,â€ť he shares.